Even if you’re not a boater, or swimmer, or fisherman, what happens on Lake Michigan affects all of us who live anywhere near it. It’s hard not to notice how far the water level has fallen.
Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling has been looking into why that’s happening, and what it means for the Chicago area.
Chicago owes its existence to its location on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s our recreation, transportation, and drinking water supply. And with the lake level within a couple of inches of breaking historic lows set in March of 1964, it’s causing all kinds of adjustments. Phil Willink is a senior research biologist for the Shedd Aquarium. “The lake level goes up and down and if you live along the lake you certainly notice that.”
The evidence is everywhere, boat ramps, lagoons, beaches. Historic records who the level of Lake Michigan fluctuates about six feet. It hit record lows in the mid 1960’s, followed by record highs in the mid 80’s. Willink says what happens over time is key. “ So what we have to do is look at long term trends which is a bit more complicated. But what we are seeing recently is that it seems to be down a foot or two. And based on predictions we’ll probably set new record lows in Lake Michigan sometime this fall or this winter.”
Willink says mild winters and lack of ice cover seem to be driving the lake drops. That’s because ice acts as a blanket and prevents evaporation. We asked Willink, what has to happen to turn this around? “Basically we’re going to need more rain, more snow. And if we have slightly cooler winters and more ice, that will help a lot right there. “ Marine officer Mark Flechsig points out fresh water lines in DuSable Harbor, causing some boats to bottom out. “That’s probably gone down a foot so just in the past 12 months.” He’s worked on Lake Michigan since 1985 and has witnessed first hand the complications that come with both high and low lake levels. He takes us to 12th Street Beach. Breakwaters built of rock, concrete, and re-bar were submerged to protect the beach. But they’ve become a hazard for unsuspecting boaters. “ It keeps us more busy,” says Officer Flechsig.
“People run aground there. If they punch a hole in their hull- we gotta get out there quick and get ‘em off that boat try to salvage that boat if possible.” A pier parallel to Navy Pier was completely submerged for years. Now, four to five feet of it is exposed. At North Avenue, the beach grows with every lake drop. It’s great for sun worshipers. But Flechsig says rescues are becoming more difficult. “If we have a situation where a swimmer is on the beach and they’re missing, it’s hard for our smaller boats to get in there. If we have a land based job where we’re coming in the truck- where there’s maybe somebody missing-you know we have a lot more land to cover-harder to get vehicles across the sand and that kind of thing.”
But the costliest complication of falling lake levels may be the impact on commerce. Less water means lighter loads. In other words, more trips, more money. Ana d lot of people are asking about the impact on fish and waterfowl that call the lake home. “It’s is unlikely that fishes living several hundred feet below the surface will notice an impact. It’s unlikely the fishes living right at the surface will notice an impact. But what we are most concerned about are coastal habitats like wetlands.” Willink says if wetlands dry out, fish and waterfowl lose spawning grounds, nurseries, and food sources. Shedd Aquarium Vice President of External and Regulatory affairs Jim Robinett emphasizes the importance of water conservation.
“When I see people washing down a sidewalk with water as opposed to sweeping it it’s like that’s not a wise use of the water resources we have. I think we take it for granted… see this huge body of water right here and say it’s limitless. But it’s really not. And on an individual basis times millions of people, we can make a difference.” Willink says bottom line, when it comes to our beloved lakes, people are resistant to change. “Nature is change and it’s always changing. The Great Lakes are used to creating beaches in one place and destroying them in another.
How can we let nature do it’s thing and yet still live comfortably alongside it? The Mississippi river is having it’s share of low water level troubles too, prompting talk of restricting barge traffic from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.
Story by Tom Skilling, Chief Meteorologist / Pam Grimes, Producer / Mike D’Angelo, Photojournalist / Jordan Guzzardo and Mike D’Angelo Photojournalists